BRISBANE, Australia – Less than three weeks before the start of the Australian Open, the forest fires in the southeast of the country have forced a second-rate tennis tournament for men to be relocated and raised concerns that the first Grand Slam tournament of the year could also be disrupted.
After at least 24 people have been killed and hundreds of homes lost in the fires and the wind has blown smoke into several major metropolitan areas, including Melbourne, the venue for the Open, tennis has become an afterthought rather than maintaining its usual status as the centerpiece of the U.S. Australian summer ,
Tennis Australia called its decision "unprecedented" and announced on Friday the move of Canberra International, which should start on Monday in the Australian capital. The event was moved almost 400 miles southwest to Bendigo, a city in Victoria, about two hours northwest of Melbourne. The air quality in Canberra was rated as the worst of all major cities in the world and rated too poor to be able to run the tournament indoors.
Liam Broady, a British player at rank 240, was one of more than 100 players who wanted to start the 2020 tennis season at the Challenger event in Canberra. When he arrived he found that the city streets were mostly empty and the sun could not penetrate the thick ash in the air, so it got dark in the late afternoon.
Conditions in Melbourne, the venue for the Open, have fluctuated over the past week and peaked on Friday when the city was hit by the fire in East Gippsland. Sometimes changing winds have brought smoke into the city from nearby fires.
Denis Kudla, an American player who trained in Melbourne on Friday before going to Bendigo, said he could not inhale or exhale fully during his training without coughing.
"If it's something like yesterday, I don't think it's safe for two or three weeks," said Kudla of possible conditions for the Australian Open. "You could play, but who knows what damage we're actually doing to ourselves? It can't be good."
The main Australian Open two-week drawing begins on January 20. The tournament qualifying rounds start one week earlier.
Novak Djokovic, seven-time Australian Open champion and President of the ATP Players Council, said on Saturday he was planning to put air quality on the agenda for the pre-tournament player meeting in Melbourne. The issue of air pollution in China has already been raised.
"If things go the same way and the air quality in Melbourne or Sydney is affected, Tennis Australia will likely have to set some rules," said Djokovic.
Australian tennis officials have said they are not planning any more events but are providing "significant additional resources" for air quality monitoring, "said Craig Tiley, tournament director of the Australian Open and executive director of Tennis Australia, in a statement over the weekend ,
"Judging the likelihood of smoke-related interruptions is a bit like how we deal with heat and rain," added Tiley. "We have experts who analyze all available live data as specifically as possible for our locations and regularly consult with tournament directors and, in the event of heat and smoke, with medical experts."
He continued: "The health of players, fans and employees is a priority at all times and we will continue to make these decisions from this perspective."
Sydney is the hardest hit city where tennis takes place this week. The ATP Cup, a new team competition, started on Friday with a round robin game in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth. The knockout stages will be moved to Sydney on Thursday.
Tim Henman, the UK team captain in the competition, has downplayed the impact on his players "in the context of what this country is going through".
The impact on cities largely depends on the direction in which the wind is blowing. With unfavorable winds on Friday, the conditions were bad enough to trigger smoke detectors in AAMI Park in Melbourne, where a soccer game between Melbourne City and Western United was scheduled.
Western United coach Mark Rudan later said he believed the game should have been postponed because of the smoke.
"Some of the players came back into the room and said they had trouble breathing, felt their throat and lungs." Rudan told The Herald Sun in Melbourne. "But there are clearly rules and the doctors know what is safe and what is not. It was test conditions; I recommend both groups of players."
Tennis could prove to be tougher: a 90-minute soccer game at the Australian Open is often less than half the playing time, especially for the men who are best-of-five games. In 2012, the men's final between Djokovic and Rafael Nadal lasted 5 hours and 53 minutes.
"There has never been a reason to postpone or cancel a slam. It will of course be a difficult decision," said Kudla. "But if the smoke gets worse, I couldn't imagine that I might be playing a four or five hour match and not have to cough like a crazy post match trying to recover and feel terrible."
While players and organizers are waiting to see whether air quality in Australia continues to deteriorate, relief efforts have begun in the tennis community. "The excessive loss of people, wildlife, populations, homes, schools, and businesses will require a tremendous effort to get these families and communities back on their feet," said Tiley. "Our goal is for tennis to play an important role if we can support this recovery."
Tennis Australia is organizing a charity exhibition game in Melbourne and Melbourne on January 15th Donate $ 100 to the Australian Red Cross for every ace hit in the Australian summer.
The As initiative follows the leadership of Australian star Nick Kyrgios, who comes from Canberra and has pledged $ 200 for every ace he hits. When he defeated Jan-Lennard Struff in his first ATP cup game on Friday in Brisbane, Kyrgios hit 20 aces.
"It is difficult to focus on tennis, to be honest," said Kyrgios, whose mother Norlaila stays in Canberra. "Every ace I hit was all I thought about. Every time it was my turn, I thought about it."